MAZI, later ELIZABETH BLAKE (White Earth Anishinabe)
Gathering pieces of our lives
Here we are, decades after we were taken from our family, five siblings have gathered some pieces of our lives and are weaving a garment made of the fragments. Our garment, full of holes that let the light in.
There were five of us, as far as we know. None of us were raised by our first family for very long. I was first born, and recently learned that I had lived with our first mother for some months. Second born, Frank was not given much family history. Next came our sisters. Jody and Terry lived with our first family for a year or two. Finally, our sister Linda arrived after Jody and Terry were removed from the home. Our family’s complicated life made it impossible for them to raise us, and one by one we were removed from their care, placed in foster care, and finally adopted. At least four of us were.
As a child, our first mother, Dolores, would sit starring into space for hours in a quiet corner and not speak. This was noted on adoption agency records and her brother (our uncle) said none of the family could communicate with her. She was withdrawn and silent. A university medical center tried to figure out what was wrong. It was long before some conditions were understood, and diagnoses were often elusive. It doesn’t really matter what she had, it affected her life and ours profoundly.
As a young adult, things went further downhill. She was not taking care of herself, on top of her lifelong withdrawn and quiet behavior. The timeline of her life is a little nebulous. Once or twice, she was confined to a state hospital. Other times lived in county provided mental health group home. She was married for many years. She and her husband lived in group homes together. Her life had much turmoil during the years all of us children joined her life. In her older years while still living in group homes, she seemed to stabilize and communicate better than she did all of her young life.
Pieces of my life
When Dolores was 21, I was born. She tried to care for me. We think at the time she lived in a chaotic household with younger siblings and her mother. I can only imagine what life was like. At some point, it was clear she couldn’t raise me, and I was placed in foster care, made a ward of the state, and then adopted.
When my adoptive parents went to an adoption agency, they already had a child by birth that was eight years older than me. He was also blind, and very smart. They told the agency that they wanted to adopt a child because they didn’t want my brother to be an only child. Also, my adoptive mother had insulin-dependent diabetes, which was brittle. They hoped to have a child who could help around home, as they had many needs. They also told the agency they wanted a daughter, so someone could care for them when they got old.
The social worker asked that they think of at least one reason for the benefit of the child. My adoptive father told this as a humorous tale and said, “Well, we had a home to offer and love.” As it turned out they were better at offering a home than love.
When things were good at home, my father would say, “My beautiful little Indian Princess.” I think this was because my skin would get very brown in the summer. I always could relate to being Indian, though I’m not sure if it was ever said.
We lived in an ordinary house with a beautiful garden. The family grew raspberries, strawberries, apples and vegetables. But life inside was punctuated with abuse. There were probably times I did wrong and needed correcting, but the worst of times were when my brother or I were unjustly accused. A few times during my childhood, my father would wake me in the middle of the night and take me to the living room to be interrogated. The goal was to have me confess that I had done whatever deed he suspected. I’m sure I made many mistakes as a child, but strangely on these occasions at night, I was innocent of his accusations.
Sometimes physical punishment was harsh. Yelling saying hurtful things happened often.
From the time I was 4, as my father left for work, he would say, “Remember to watch that your mother is okay.” He worried about her having an insulin reaction. She tended to have quite a few—and sometimes to the point of unconsciousness. It could be that because of caring for those in my second family, I decided to become a nurse later, even though I loved art and wanted to be an artist.
As I got older, I was told I was not smart enough to go to college, unlike my brother, their biological child. School was hard for me when I was young. I would space out and not hear what we were supposed to be doing. I remember suddenly becoming aware that there was a new paper on my desk, but not sure what everyone was doing. My father said I’d have staring spells, and he’d snap his fingers in front of my face and I didn’t respond. Also, I was a very quiet child who rarely spoke, and tried not to ask for anything. I was an adult before I realized it was okay to like something or speak of an opinion. Life feels more joyful when you can decide what you like. Not having many opinions has served me well however. I try not to judge others.
My mother was cold and distant. There were never hugs or comfort given. My father, unsure I had seen the signals told me many years later, just before her funeral, “She just couldn’t love you.” But in his own way, I think my father did. I’m grateful for having a much more stable home than my first family could have offered and forgive them their shortcomings.
All my life I did not want to be noticed in school or at home. If I tried to be alone in my room, I was told there was work I could be doing both inside and in the yard. Life was difficult at home and I could not have survived and thrived without my grandma.
I had years of taking the bus by myself to grandma’s apartment. My parents let me take a bus and even make a bus transfer as soon as I was 8. Sometimes I wondered if it was a Hansel and Gretel motive that they hoped I would disappear. Probably my imagination.
There were two places where I found peace, solace, and joy. One was being in nature and the other with my grandma. I love spending time camping with girl scouts, in the lakes and woods of Northern Minnesota.
Throughout childhood my place of peace and refuge was my grandmother’s apartment. She was not demonstrative in her love, but I was always aware that I was loved and cared for with her. I spent lots of time with her, learning to sew on an old treadle sewing machine, making doll clothes, mending, and learning to crochet and cook. She also had a grown blind daughter, my aunt, who lived with her. Part of my time spent there I would go shopping with my aunt, help her crossing streets safely, describing foods in the store, and pulling the wire cart back home. This aunt was very independent though, and as an adult, I knew she could navigate her way to and from work and to the store on her own. She would ask the grocery store clerks to help her find foods in the store when grandma or I were not along.
It was clear to my cousins that I was special to our grandmother. At a family Thanksgiving dinner, a cousin taunted me with, “You are Grandma’s favorite, and you are not even REAL!” The comment was meant to hurt me, but it really made me happy.
I had years of feeling nurtured by my grandma. Then, when I was 14, she died of a heart attack. It was the most difficult loss I’ve ever had. I loved her dearly, and now would not have her apartment as a respite. My sweet, gentle grandmother, wise with few words, gone. Kind and humble, gone. Comfort and respite, gone. We all have probably lost someone close whose presence we miss to the depth of our soul, and for me, it was Grandma Marie.
When I was 17, I graduated from high school. My parents told me that I would need to pay rent as soon as I graduated. I knew I couldn’t go to college or trade school without some savings, so I got a job full-time. I graduated on a Thursday and started a full-time clerk-typist job on Monday. I did pay them rent for a month, but then realized it was much cheaper to rent a room than live with them, with all the good and bad of being free from family at 17.
Becoming emancipated minor was necessary. In those days, I think you needed to be 21 to sign for your care and be responsible for your debts. Being totally independent was both a little scary and a way to grow up quick. It is not an easy way, but I think young people need to know they can do it all alone if they need to. Just keep trying! Imagine yourself, as you want to be.
For 15 months I worked full-time, saved money, then quit my job to go to nursing school. LPN school was the quickest way I knew to have a job that I could support myself. It took many more years and three degrees to become a pediatric nurse practitioner. Small steps have been the way I could achieve any goal. It works for me.
As we walked to school, my friend Kat turned off at Minneapolis College of Art & Design. I smiled and waved, and inside my heart sank, knowing I could not afford to go to art school. Just recently I was able to take art school courses in illustration. It felt like home.
Native Guiding Spirit
Margaret was a dear friend, Anishinabe, Ojibwe teacher, guiding spirit. I’m so grateful to her. She helped me find a connection to the culture that felt like home. I took classes and lessons from her on Ojibwe language for most of seven years. She took me along like a daughter to powwows and events in the community. Always I hoped that at these community gatherings I would see someone who looked enough like me that I would know it was a mother, sister, brother, aunt or uncle. I will never know if any of these faces were my close relatives, but they all welcomed me as family. I was blessed to have Margaret show me the way back and teach me to live life as a verb. She said, “You will notice that most of our words are verbs. We have very little use for nouns. They are the words of solid, stagnating things, not of life, which is always moving.” Miigwech Margaret for bringing me home, and Miigwech Gitchi Manido for Margaret and my sense of belonging.
When I had my daughter, I began to understand how having a child changes your life and realized that my first mother would probably not forget this experience. I wanted to respect her privacy and whatever life she had now. It was time to search for my first family. Calling the adoption agency seemed to be the best way. The social worker asked the reason I wanted information and I said mainly, I wanted to know family medical history, and also more about family history. They said they could give non-identifying information that was about 27 years old, but that might help. The social worker put my file on her desk, and did not let me look at it, and read, “Your birthmother had you when she was 21. She had serious problems with mental health.” At the same time, she was dictating this so that I could have a solid piece of information that I could read again and again, trying to make three-dimensional people from these words and non-identifying descriptions of events.
They also said that one aunt was a fashion illustrator, and an uncle was an artist. A smile came across my face to think that being an artist could be genetic. When the agency did a search, they found an aunt who would not share any information without knowing why. The search was closed.
A friend said, “Don’t give up!” She knew of a woman who did searches. I called her and told her I knew my birth name and mother’s maiden name. She agreed to do the search for $50 to start. If it took longer than she expected, she would charge more for her time. She called me within a few hours and told me that she had spoken to my grandmother and that I could have her phone number to learn more about my mother. It gave me chills to think my first family was found. The conversation was full of information about the whole family, and she also told me that I had two more siblings, sisters, who were several years younger than me, and had also been adopted when they were toddlers. It was a shock, but I was determined to find them.
Soon afterward I was able to meet Dolores at the group home where she lived. Sad and poignant when she told me, “I am an artist. Would you like to see my work?” “Yes!” I thought, another Van Gogh possibly. She brought me into her shared bedroom, opened a drawer and showed me pages in her Mickey Mouse coloring book. I tried to hide my tears.
I went back and saw her on my own and later with my brother Frank too. She seemed happy, even caring, but very childlike. We used to write letters when living far apart and even though they all have most of the same words about eating at White Castle or going to the Dollar Store, I have saved most of them. She passed away in 2017. I’m so blessed to have known her. So many adoptees don’t have that chance.
Now the mystical part began. A couple of weeks later, the woman who did the search called me again. She said, “You’ll never believe this, but I talked to your brother, and he called looking for family. He grew up in foster care.”
“No, that couldn’t be MY brother. My grandmother said there were just two other children. Two sisters who are younger than me.”
She said, “Yes, he has the same unusual last name as your birth name. He never lost his birth name because he was in foster care. Call him and find out more.”
A new brother! Soon afterward we met, he had arranged to get his birth certificate and I now had mine. I expected to see his and find out that he had a different birth mother. He was so handsome. He was also so funny. The story of growing up in foster care was so sad. He remembered two long-term foster homes: one from his first memory to age about seven, and another as a teenager.
The first he could remember he thought were his “real” parents. He was shocked one day when he came downstairs and saw his suitcase packed, his shoes at its side. His mother, the only one he knew, said he was going to another home to live. It took him a long time to get over that.
In his final foster home, he said foster children were expected to eat meals at a table in a different room from their family. He never felt he was really part of that family. His other foster brothers were lost to him as an adult, and now he wanted to find his real family and his birth parents.
Frank had a seizure disorder that was not well-controlled with the medication he took. His neurologist tried lots of things including a research trial medication. Nothing stopped the seizures. He died at age 38 of a very long seizure and swelling of his brain. It was so hard to lose him.
I’m thankful that he was able to spend time with our first mother on and off before he died. He told me once that he had never had a relative who needed him for anything, and so with mixed feelings, he would help her with errands and to get things she needed.
In the next few years I also met my sister Jody. She and Terry were adopted together as toddlers. It gave me peace to know that they had each other. These were the two children that our grandmother told me about. At that time, I didn’t have a chance to meet Terry. Their adoptive parents did not really approve of Jody meeting another sibling, and I heard were somewhat disbelieving of our existence. (Terry Niska Watson is also sharing her story in this book.)
Beautiful Terry. I’m so grateful to know her. There are amazing coincidences in our lives. We are both nurse practitioners. We are both artists too. As we have exchanged information, we also learned we both have the same severe allergy to latex. So that must be genetic too. Like Frank, she has a great sense of humor. It is such an amazing story of how similar we have all been, though raised in many different families.
Terry and I met when she welcomed me to her home in the Southwest a couple years ago. It was such an incredible experience, hours of talking, comparing our lives, finding things that we both like. It was life changing!
In June 2018 we were invited to a Welcome Home Gathering for adopted or fostered adults who have Native American heritage. Three of us sisters planned to return to our home and attend the gathering. One was unable to go, and one had to cancel. Terry and I attended the gathering and made friends with others who were adopted. Sandy White Hawk and others from our tribe arranged everything. It was an amazing 3 days of teachings from our culture, ceremonies and a pow wow with an honor dance for us. It was the most healing time we had ever experienced. Everyone who has this chance should go and feel the power of being welcomed back home and belonging.
Years passed, and I went to live in Europe with my husband. One day, the phone rang, and I was surprised to hear someone speaking English say, “Hi, I’m Linda, and I’m your sister.” “No, I told her,” I already know about all my siblings. I have two sisters and a brother.” I thought it must be a mistake; there couldn’t possibly be more. She assured me that the state department of human services had helped her locate me because of a medical problem. Her son possibly had a neurological problem and the state helped her locate me in Europe so she could learn about my medical history, which would help the physician diagnose her son. Part of being adopted is not knowing family or medical history. But the great part, she was my sister! So cool to have another sister. She had lived in Europe as a teenager and she had gone to art school. Wow! Another artist in the family. We kept in contact for several months, and then drifted apart. Her last name is common, and I couldn’t find her again for years. Just last Fall, she called. After a few days, we met again. This time we are going to stay in touch!
Back together again, for life!
Thoughts that comforted me as a child, still give me peace today: The wonder of life in all its forms; the mystical connection to people we may never meet in life; the air we breathe being the breath of all life; the gentle kindness that humans often share; the beauty of nature and the Universe that surrounds us; the love of family; so many relatives; all of this is found.
Elizabeth lives with her husband in the Pacific Northwest and is often found with her daughter and four young grandchildren. She is a pediatric nurse practitioner with a special interest in children with disrupted families who may have attachment problems. She is the author of GreenBean: True Blue Family, a story of differences and belonging. Also, the illustrator of Sleep Baby Sleep in English and Spanish. You can find her though her website, http://elizabethblake.us